24 December, 2019

The Missouri Department of Corrections Says "Happy Holidays!" with Treats... but They Don't Really Mean It

Every year at Christmastime, the Missouri DOC allots several tens of thousands of dollars from its statewide annual canteen profits and buys a treat bag for every prisoner in its custody. The bags usually come from Keefe Corporation, the Saint Louis-based prison profiteer. In addition to all of the Keefe Kitchens-branded products that they package specifically for institutional sale, the company also packs and ships these clear plastic bags filled with several varieties of holiday snacks, at multiple price levels, to institutions around America. Missouri prisons hand them out to the inmates two or three days before Christmas.

When we're told to lock down it's forty-five minutes earlier than usual. The guards make it to B-Wing with the sealed cases of treats a good deal later. They enter loudly, with two in the lead and another two taking up the rear, acting as if it's gold bullion they're escorting through the housing unit.

One of them shouts, "Show your IDs, gentlemen!" It's not exactly "Merry Christmas," but I don't have expectations of kindness from anyone working for the state, so I don't mind.

My cellmate, Jeff, ever the wise-ass, tells the guard who opens our chuck hole, "I'm disabled. It's strictly a mental disability, but I'm supposed to get an ADA bag, too."

The guy is visibly confused. Jeff laughs and says, "I'm just messin' with you, man."

"Oh," he cracks a smile as he passes the bags in. "Good one."

The chuck hole closes with a thud.

The four unmerry men in uniform leave, and Jeff and I root though this year's assortment of junk food. Years past offered bags that were truly indulgent. I used to be able to snack a little bit every day and still make my trove last until after the new year. No longer. With what little is in the bags now, I'm lucky to have a week's worth of sweets. Of course, it still beats a big, fat holiday goose egg.

In order of tastiness, from best to worst, here's an inventory of Keefe Holiday Treat Bag 2019:

  • One 1.5-ounce bag of Toad-Ally Snax (no, really!) Hanky Panky chocolate-drizzled caramel popcorn

  • One Quaker Chewy Chocolate Chunk granola bar

  • A 1.5-ounce bag of Cheez-It crackers

  • One 1.75-ounce bag of Cool Ranch Doritos

  • A 4-ounce bag of King Nut trail mix

  • A 1-ounce bag of Bud's Best Holiday Confetti Crém cookies

  • Four single-serve packets of Maxwell House Select Roast instant coffee (aaaaaand I'm back on the sauce)

  • A half-ounce packet of Peterson's Mini Pretzels

  • A 1-ounce bag of Bud's Best Holiday Candy 'n Cookies

  • An "original" flavor 0.9-ounce beef stick from Tomer Kosher

  • An Atkinson's "jumbo" (0.7-ounce) peppermint stick

  • One package of six Austin PB & J sandwich crackers

  • A 3-ounce bag of ¡Hola Nola! Creole tortilla chips

  • Two sleeves of wild strawberry Crystal Light energy drink mix

  • A 1.75-ounce bag of Crunchy Flamin' Hot Cheetos

  • A package of iced blueberry Pop-Tarts, with multicolored sprinkles

  • One 5-ounce package of Woopee Lemon Cremes cookies

  • Right away, Jeff and I traded a couple of things. I ended up with more Cheez-Its and a second granola bar; he got extra Pop-Tarts and those freakishly red Cheetos. I couldn't unload the Lemon Cremes on anyone, though. One guy we know ate six of them right away — half the package — and said that he vomited. Woopee, indeed! And to all a good night.

    21 December, 2019

    Thirteen (Mostly Buddhist) Books I Spent My Fall Reading

    My mother attended a reading by literary fantasist Salman Rushdie and afterward sent me an autographed copy of his latest novel, Quichotte. I've read almost all of Rushdie's work and, as a fan, would've loved to say that this book blew me away. Unfortunately, familiarity is exactly what limited my enjoyment of it. Quichotte is a twenty-first-century Don Quixote remix. His previous novels — particularly The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which played on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and The Satanic Verses, which infamously riffed on Islam — both rejiggered old legends to greater effect.

    Among the many books that @Free_Byron_Case follower Punker Bee surprised me with this year, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire: A Novel was the best so far. A 999-line poem and accompanying "notes" are the form taken by this very quirky story of political intrigue that builds to a very satisfying surprise ending.

    Somewhat less satisfying was the dystopian science fiction novel Pure, by Julianna Baggott. Its protagonist is a girl with a doll's head for a hand, who lives with her aging uncle and a tiny mechanical bug in the post-apocalyptic wastes and crafts delicate butterflies out of scrap metal. I should've known, by this description alone, that this was not he novel for me. Worse yet, it's final words were "The End of Part One" — a cliffhanger. I just let go.

    The Wings to Awakening is Thanissaro Bhikkhu's translation of various Buddhist texts dealing with the Buddha's core teachings. All are taken from the Pali Canon, the oldest known texts of Buddhist thought still in existence. Like everything from the Pali Canon, it makes for seriously dry, repetitive reading. I have no designs on becoming a monk, which would require me to take a vow to live by a truly epic set of precepts, but my friend Luke is a Theravada Buddhism practitioner and therefore believes that exhaustive study is just as important as — if not more important than — meditation, so this is the kind of book he'll be shoving my direction pretty frequently as we travel along the path of dharma practice.

    The Thai dharma teacher Dr. Thynn Thynn wrote Living Meditation, Living Insight to be much more accessible. It's conversational in style because this book is made up of essays responding to questions from the members of Dr. Thynn's dharma group. Accordingly, it dispenses with the theoretical and helpfully deals in practical day-to-day concerns from a general Buddhist perspective.

    Similarly, the former Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor's excellent Buddhism without Belief uses only straightforward language. Batchelor shows the reader Buddhism through the eyes of what might be called an originalist, arguing that the historical Buddha wasn't some superpowered divinity but just a man, whose enlightenment experience resulted in the codification of what we now call the dharma, and that those teachings have value irrespective of a practitioner's belief in supernatural phenomena like reincarnation and prayer. Batchelor's suggestion is that Buddhists embrace a stance of studious agnosticism in order to better live in open-mindedness, practicing nondualistic thought. I can dig it.

    For my birthday, my mother got me a couple of books from my Amazon wish list. (Thank you so much, Mum!) The first was Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, an experimental fantasy of Kublai Kahn being regaled with Marco Polo's tales of far-off lands — cities with skyscrapers, cities on stilts, cities with dirigibles drifting overhead, cities of the dead.... It's a gorgeous little book, the stuff of dreams.

    The other book I received from Mum was Writing in Flow, by Susan K. Perry, PhD. It's an expansion of a study that Perry did for her doctoral dissertation on so-called flow experiences — mental states in which the person experiencing them undergoes a voluntary shift into a state of intense concentration, trying to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. Writers, athletes, painters, gamers, adept conversationalists — people from all walks of life experience flow at least once in a while. This book analyzes seventy-odd writers' unique descriptions of flow, then offers suggestions for how a reader might engineer conditions to more reliably enter flow whenever they sat down to write. True, Writing in Flow probably sounds like it's of much less interest to you than it was to me, but you're perusing the reading list of an atypically literate prisoner, so I'm not quite sure what you expected.

    D.T. Suzuki wrote the essays that comprise Zen Buddhism in the 1950s, just when Buddhism was first making inroads into America. Some of them feel sixty years old. Nevertheless, this collection offered a lot of fascinating (probably true) history, so I don't regret checking it out from ERDCC's chapel library. Ditto for The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra, by noted Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a short, beautiful little book containing not just a twenty-first-century translation of the Heart Sutra, Buddhism's most cherished, most oft-repeated text, but also the master's wonderful commentaries on it.

    Another anthology of texts from the Pali Canon, The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation, by Sarah Shaw , was next, followed by Acharya Buddharakkhita's translation The Dhammapada: The Buddha's Path of Wisdom. The former offers a glimpse into the sutras that address meditation practice in its manifold forms. It reads like a new car manual. The latter is more friendly, which is undoubtedly why tens of thousands of practitioners around the globe meditate on the simple truths contained in its 423 verses. Consider Verse 51: "Like a beautiful flower full of color but without fragrance, even so, fruitless are the fair words of one who does not practice them." Or Verse 125: "Like fine dust thrown against the wind, evil falls back upon that fool who offends an inoffensive, pure and guiltless man." Or Verse 228: "There never was, there never will be, nor is there now, a person who is wholly blamed nor wholly praised." Surely you can see the Dhammapada's appeal.

    My autumn reading ended with another Thanissaro Bhikku translation, Poems of the Elders: An Anthology from the Theragatha and Therigatha. The ancient texts known as the Theragatha and Therigatha are collections of enlightenment poems attributed to the earliest orders of Buddhist monks and nuns, respectively. Personal, vivid, and grounded, these poems express the profound joy of enlightenment, in hundreds of different ways, in poems by matriarchs and misanthropes, servants and shopkeepers, harlots and the high-born, robbers and rice farmers — a small sample of the myriad faces of early Buddhism, touchingly illustrating the dharma's unique accessibility to one and all. I found it inspiring.

    19 December, 2019

    The Body, Considered

    My first day in prison, I had to strip down to nothing in a tiny room full of other nude men, then show the inside of my mouth, spread my butt cheeks, and lift my scrotum for a guard with a flashlight and all the humanitarian spirit of a doctor at Auschwitz. Then I received a tiny towel and was directed into a shower room where another guard misted me with slippery chemicals from a pump-action bug sprayer. I felt demeaned, forlorn, weak.

    DOC policy demands a lot of nudity. Most people preparing for company just put on the right music, open their front door, and say hi. Before spending time with a visitor, I have to peel off my clothes and hoist up my junk for a stranger wearing a badge. Eighteen years into my sentence, I'm sometimes randomly strip-searched before getting to do my job as an office janitor, and I hardly think about it at all. I'm telling you this not for pity or because I'm a chronic oversharer but to make a point: it's hard to get precious about the human body when you're elbow to elbow, or stark naked, with someone else almost twenty-four hours a day.

    Being stuffed like sardines in a can might offend some people's sense of personal dignity. At ERDCC, this happens most often at mealtimes. There's no real consistency to when the prison population is released to the dining hall (or anywhere, a circumstance that I blogged about here). Hungry and expectant in the half-hour or so before a meal, a crowd of twenty to forty prisoners waits at the front of the wing. They stand, twitchy with impatience, staring out the window that looks onto the prison yard. The loudspeaker eventually beeps and rumbles with a guard's voice: "Mainline, gentlemen! Mainline! Let's go!" The men all jockey to be in front of each other as they bumrush the door. Heels are stepped on, odors waft, bodies jostle — all like cattle though the chute. Sometimes, when I'm really in the mood, I moo.

    Living in a very small space with at least one other human affords plenty of time to acquaint oneself with the biology of Homo sapiens sapiens, too — the body's most intimate smells, its sleep-and-wake cycle, its waste production, its squishy and solid sounds, its myriad modes of functioning and malfunctioning. A cell's door, according to its purpose, is more often locked than not. The inhabitants are trapped inside together. One can either resign oneself to it or throw a fit over his cellmate's every cough and fart.

    The psychological community refers to getting used to something as "habituation." It's considered to be a positive adaptation, a way of better surviving the world. The concept of habituation isn't new. Buddhist teachings from 2,500 years ago hold that the roots of dukkha — a Sanskrit word variously translated as "stress," "discomfort," or "suffering" — lie in the inevitability of old age, sickness, and death. A certain Buddhist practice therefore involves meditating on bodily corruption as a way of subduing passions and one's unhealthy attachment to physical form.

    Why worry about every wrinkle and spot?
    Everybody's got a body, and every body's got to rot.

    (I just made that up.) But back to my point.

    I used to have this idea that my body was some precious thing, not to be taken lightly or presented to unworthy eyes. I took a lot of vain pleasure in its form — its particular assortment of curves and angles, its unique range of motion, the tone and texture of the skin wrapping it.... Having been imprisoned since I was a very youthful twenty-two, it took a while for time's effects to become visible. My hair thinned first, then laugh lines appeared, then crow's feet crept into the picture. My ego underwent a minor crisis, as I stared into the mirror for long periods, fretting over how I might hide from the inevitable.

    Of all the things that a man wrongly imprisoned for life might worry about! How ridiculous a few tiny wrinkles and a less-bountiful coiffeur are, compared to my stolen freedom! But such is the strength of delusion — the delusion that the form in which we move through the world is under our full control, and the delusion that anything in this universe might remain as it is, unchanging, for any length of time.

    I often call my body "the meat machine." Zen Buddhist traditions refer to it as "the bag of skin." These aren't terms intended to offend anyone or provoke disgust, just to downplay the perceived involvement of physicality in selfhood. A vehicle is all the body is, for us to get around in. Too much attachment to it is futile and hazardous to your mental health. Although there's no question that living in this particular physical form influences one's life in countless ways, the body isn't who one is. I've treated mine very, very well for years, yet still it rebels and breaks down unexpectedly; it isn't even a faithful companion!

    Thinking of the body dispassionately is liberating. I'm not irrated by every snore and slurp my cellmate makes, my senses are no longer offended by mealtime cattle drives, and, most importantly, I don't feel degraded anymore during those all-too-frequent strip-searches. By abandoning attachments to the body, one lives so much better in it. What a beautiful paradox!

    09 December, 2019

    A Room of One's Own

    A while back, ERDCC's administrative staff surveyed the prison's general population, distributing surveys with just one question on them: Would you be interested in a single-man cell assignment as an incentive for good behavior? Peace and quiet and personal space aren't as popular as I would've assumed. Despite the countless compromises and inconveniences that are involved with sleeping in a bathroom with another man, some weren't tempted by the prospect of living alone.

    One could have legitimate reasons for not wanting to live by himself. The fear of being burglarized is one. Without a cellmate, one's chance of having his property or canteen items stolen increases somewhat. This could be because no one's around to keep watch, or because fewer sneak-thieves want to risk pissing off the wrong guy. Sex offenders are certainly more apt to be targeted, so they're less likely to have been interested in their own cell.

    Living alone, there's also greater potential for sexual assault. This is probably why one of the rumored forthcoming criteria for living alone will be having already served a certain number of years. Most people who've been locked up for a decade or more know how to navigate the prison environment and don't have problems with predators. Fresh meat would probably avoid a living situation that puts them at increased risk, anyway.

    Most people, however, seem to have expressed interest. The deputy warden acknowledged last month that once the prisoners affected by new sentencing guidelines are shipped out, their vacant cells will be made available as bachelor pads. Men who've gone five years without a conduct violation, are custody level five (i.e., maximum-security inmates), and have at least four rehabilitative programs under their belts will be eligible. As I mentioned above, more criteria and conditions will surely be added, but this is a fantastic start. My friend Zach always said that he'd pay rent if the institution would let him live by himself. I'd laugh every time, but in the back of my mind lurked similar thoughts.

    The company of others can be wonderful, but it exhausts me. I need solitude for my psychological well-being. And although I'm a reasonable person who recognizes that meeting halfway is usually best for everyone, not having to live with someone whose lifestyle is vastly different from my own is preferable. You want specific examples? Go and read the blog posts I wrote about Bruce, Ray, Hoss, Bob, Tracy, Snake, and Blake, seven truly terrible cohabitants (albeit, not the only awful ones) that I've been trapped in cells with over the years. Then try telling me I'm picky.

    My friend Luke and I have talked about this. He's been imprisoned for nearly as long as I have, and he loathes sharing living quarters — even with his good friend Tim, with whom he gets along perfectly well. It's a psychological thing. Being trapped in a box is stressful and undignified enough. Losing the last vestiges of your privacy and range of physical movement because another person has to occupy the same 110 (or so) square feet is beyond the pale. Now I picture the potentially immanent end to my cellmate situation. It's beyond appealing; it's tantalizing.

    To not have my sleep disrupted by someone else's snoring, insomnia, or late night snack-crunching! To be solely responsible for the cleanliness of the cell! To preside over the full expanse of the desk — for writing, drawing, typing, or preparing food! To unpack from my footlocker only what minimal stuff I want to see every day, rather than the ugly, immovable clutter of another person's institutional life! To write and read with minimal potential for interruption! To burn the midnight oil, or lie down to make an early night of it, as I see fit! To not get stuck waiting for someone's conversation to wind down so I can empty my bladder! To exit the space for a few hours, confident that my documents aren't being read, my food isn't being eaten, and my stuff, in general, isn't being abused!

    It wouldn't be a restoration of my freedom, but it'd definitely be a step in the right direction. My only question is How long will it be before can I sign up?